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Magic and Witchcraft
Magic in the Middle Ages: A Preliminary Discussion

Dr. Karen Louise Jolly, ed.

Problem of Magic | Sources and Practitioners | Practice of Magic | Links to Sites and Sources

The Problem of Magic:
Magic is an elusive category in medieval studies, or in any field for that matter. "One man's magic is another man's religion." We should especially beware of calling medieval religious practices magic, since medieval Christianity had its own definitons of magic as something antithetical to true religion. Here are a few examples of the problem of magic and religion in the Middle Ages.

Anthropologists traditionally differentiated magic from religion by saying that magic manipulates natural or supernatural forces, while religious prayer involves supplicating the deity for assistance. Magicians, in this view, have power to compel, whereas suppliants humbly ask. For example, the prototypical magician from the New Testament, elaborated in medieval legend, is Simon Magus, who attempted to buy the miraculous power of the disciples.

And yet this distinction between manipulation and supplication is hard to discern in many historical texts. For example, the power of the eucharist and the sign of the cross to ward off evil are widely used in medicinal remedies, along with Christian prayers and pre-Christian prescriptions and actions. Are the healers manipulating divine forces or supplicating them?

  • See Anglo-Saxon Charms for remedies employing Christian ritual. Is this magic or religion? In our modern eyes, these remedies appear unscientific and "magical." However, they do use supplicative prayer and appear in monastic manuscripts.
  • For the power of the cross, take a look at Gregory of Tours' book of miracles (read the one about the fly!) For the power of the eucharist, read some of Caesarius of Heisterbach's stories or other medieval sermon examples of the power of the host. Despite their similarity to modern notions of magic, these are more examples of popular religion than anything else and their purpose is often to thwart demonic magic with Christian miracle, as evident in Saint Benedict's life and miracles.
  • What do we make, then, of saints, particularly the Virgin Mary, who seem to have the power to compel God to do their will (see Tales of the Virgin). Are such saints "magic workers" or "miracle workers?" Certainly in their own time, they were cast as miracle workers imitating Christ or his disciples. To call medieval saints magicians is thus to make nonsense out of the medieval view of them as miracle workers who oppose the magic of evil, demonic magicians.
  • Or, to use an even more familiar, and sometimes controversial example, what about Christmas trees? Are they a remnant of "pagan magic" or a Christian symbol? Certainly trees were a central part of Germanic pre-Christian religion ("paganism" to early medieval Christians, who then saw remnants of this pagan religion as evil "magic"). And yes, a "tree" is a key symbol in Christianity, the cross (See the Anglo-Saxon poem, the Dream of Rood). If Christmas trees take on a Christian meaning, as symbols of the cross, rebirth, and new life, then are they "still" pagan or magic to those Christians who use them to symbolize their religious faith?
The questions raised by these examples all have to do with meaning: what do things like Christmas trees, charms, or saintly miracles mean? This question can be addressed best historically: what did it mean then, to whom, and why? To understand what magic and miracle meant in the Middle Ages is to delve into medieval mentalities.

Sources and Practioners:

One major hurdle in attempting to understand medieval magic is the problem of sources. Much of our information come from laws, penitentials, and sermons of Christian leaders condemning magic and its practitioners. We do have some manuscripts of recipes and formulas, either because they were not deemed magical at the time or because they escaped the flames to which they would often be condemned by right thinkers ("the orthodox").

What is magic according to thise thinkers? Within medieval Christendom, magic was the opposite of religion, and therefore defined by those who were in a position to define Christianity: church leaders and religious authors. In that sense "medieval magic" is whatever practices church leaders condemned as not of God. These authorities usually associate magic with the devil, paganism, heresy, and witchcraft or sorcery (see, for example, Wulfstan's Sermo Lupi).

Thus, many practices that might seem, in a later age, to be magical in the sense of unscientific or unChristian were part of medieval medicine and liturgy, as practiced by male or female lay healers, physicians, barber-surgeons, as well as some monks, nuns, and priests. Some of what they did as recorded in these manuscripts does not look all that different in modern eyes from remedies condemned by church leaders at the time: what we today might consider objectionable as "unscientific" or superstitious might have been considered appropriate at the time--the use of liturgical prayers or the sign of the cross, for example. On the other hand, the practices labeled at the time by church leaders as magic were condemned more on religious grounds as demonic, illusory, or illicit uses of power, while their practitioners were labeled magicians, sorcerers, or witches.

The Practice of Magic

Given this negative framework for magic, did people in the Middle Ages actually practice it? If so what was it, and more importantly, why?

Richard Kieckhefer, in his text Magic in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1990), divides his chapters according to environment, sources, and connections:

  • the classical inheritance: both Graeco-Roman and Biblical
  • European paganism and folklore: especially Norse, and Irish traditions
  • the common tradition of medieval magic: divination, medicine (including charms, prayers, and adjurations), protective amulets, sorcery (misuse of the above for evil purposes), popular astrology, and trickery/illusion.
  • courtly magic: court magicians, magical objects such as automatons and gems, and literary magic in the romances
  • intellectual magic, derived from Arabic learning and the occult sciences: astrology, astral magic, alchemy, books of secrets
  • necromancy, the product of a "clerical underworld:" conjuring spirits
In these divisions, we can see the boundaries between magic and other medieval phenomena: classical knowledge, European folklore, Christian liturgy, natural science, and literature. Magic is not therefore, a marginalized phenomenon in medieval society but is connected to a variety of aspects of medieval life and bears close study for what it reveals about the people of the Middle Ages.


Primary Sources cited here:

Other sites:
  • Prof. Deeana Klepper, Boston University, RN242: Magic, Religion and Science (includes primary source links)

  • Copyright © 2000, (Karen Louise Jolly). This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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